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Michael Phelps: Breaking records, smashing stereotypes

Michael Phelps: Breaking records, smashing stereotypes

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Have you ever heard someone suggest that ‘Depressed people are lazy, and they just need to toughen up’? Not only can such statements be extremely hurtful, but evidence flies in the face of such thinking.

Case in point: Olympic athlete Michael Phelps’s battle with depressive symptoms and suicidality. One thing that makes his story so compelling is that he is a record-breaking gold medalist whose training undoubtedly requires tremendous focus and dedication, and who most people would certainly not consider to be ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’.

In recent years, he has opened up about his experiences (1, 2). Let’s take a look at what he has shared, and how this might relate to mental health more broadly:

1. He cited social support as an important factor which helped him realize that suicide was not a good solution.  My clinical experience has shown me that people with depression often tend to isolate themselves. Low mood seems to say ‘just stay in bed, cocoon yourself under the warm covers, things will seem quieter and safer there, and you won’t have to struggle to expend energy interacting with people or doing activities.’  Sometimes people feel like they would be burdening others with their problems, or that others won’t understand what they are going through. But the reality is that isolating ourselves from the people who truly care about us can contribute to further worsening our mood, resulting in a vicious cycle where low mood makes us want to isolate ourselves, which in turn can contribute to further lowering of our mood. And ironically, sometimes the periods when our mood is lowest and our inclination to confide or socialize is plummeting can actually be among the most important times to do the opposite and reach out.

2. He reported having been critical or disappointed with himself when he did not beat a certain world record. This suggests that he may have had a focus on outcome goals, where the motivation is tied to the result (e.g. winning a competition), as opposed to process goals where the focus is on the steps involved (e.g. hard work, love of learning) (3). This may have left him feeling like a failure when he did not achieve his desired outcome. Indeed, some research has found that process goals can have certain advantages, including more enjoyment (4). I’ve often heard clients say things like ‘I’ll be happy when I achieve x goal / when I hit x milestone / when x is over’, but as clinical sports psychologist Kristen Keim noted, it is important to take pleasure in the process and in the moment (5).

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3. He reported that his sense of self-worth declined after he retired from swimming. Sports psychologist Dr. Goldman noted that equating identity with sport can lead some athletes to lose their sense of self (5). It can be very risky to put all of your eggs in one basket by linking your sense of self-worth to any one area of life (be it academic performance, romantic relationships, or physical appearance) because of the negative ramifications for mood and/or self-esteem when we don’t perform as well as we would have liked in that area, or when our involvement in that area diminishes. As such, some therapies encourage clients to develop and value multiple domains of life (6).

4. He noted that he had not reflected on his accomplishments along the way. Perhaps it is surprising that someone who has won so many gold medals during his career would not have already reflected on his successes. But many of us can relate to being focused on getting things done; it can feel like we are running on a treadmill that is going so fast that we struggle to keep up and to catch our breath, making it a real challenge to focus on the present moment and to practice mindfulness. See my colleague Natsumi’s blogpost to learn more about mindful awareness and how you can begin to incorporate it (7).

5. He was initially reluctant to get help, and anxious about the idea of change. Some people think – if you’re not doing well, you should jump at the chance to feel better, right? In reality, things often aren’t that simple. In many ways, we are creatures of habit, and we often find comfort in familiarity, even if that familiarity isn’t ideal. The idea of some unknown change can feel risky or scary, and people may wonder if they are capable of change, if that change will be sustainable, or if they will be fundamentally different people when their depressive symptoms have improved. These are all valid questions; make sure to raise them with your therapist if they are of concern to you.

6. Having benefitted from treatment, he went on to raise awareness and develop a foundation aimed at promoting stress management for youth. Although not everyone will have their own foundation, some people are eventually able to make meaning or see the silver lining in their experience, for instance, by noting that their own struggles have improved their ability to empathize with others and to demonstrate self-compassion.

Bottom line: Struggling with depression does not make someone weak or lazy. And the wide variety of people coming forward about their own experiences demonstrates that very accomplished, hard-working and motivated individuals can struggle with mental health problems. Michael Phelps’s experience illustrates this point well, as well as the importance of factors like social support, motivation, self-worth, and mindfulness in mental health.


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

  1. http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/19/health/michael-phelps-depression/index.html
  2. https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/03/sport/olympics-michael-phelps-swimming-mental-health/index.html
  3. Qu, Y.., Pomerantz, E. M., & Deng, C. (2016). Mothers’ goals for adolescents in the United States and China: Content and transmission, J Res Adolesc., 26, 126-141.
  4. Wilson, K. & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 89-100.
  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/post-olympic-depression/496244/
  6. Fairburn, C. G. (2008). Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 
  7. https://connectepsychology.com/blog/2016/1/11/3-simple-mindfulness-practices-for-coping-with-difficult-experiences-and-emotions-in-day-to-day-life

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

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Have you ever had the thought, “I never want to feel this way again.” Maybe you did something that you felt was embarrassing, maybe you experienced something traumatic, maybe you ended a significant relationship and felt broken-hearted. Maybe someone made fun of you and made you feel small. Maybe you had a panic attack and you felt like you were losing control. 

After experiences like these, we understandably want to protect ourselves from the difficult thoughts and feelings that come along with them. Why wouldn’t we? So we change our behaviours, a lot or a little, to get ourselves as far away from these painful thoughts and feeling as possible. Sometimes though in our efforts to avoid feeling this sort of pain again, we end up avoiding some of the good things life has to offer. After all, most of the awesome, magical, fulfilling things that happen in life often entail tolerating difficult thoughts and feelings – like running a marathon, writing a difficult entrance exam, or asking someone out on a date. Moreover, the things that we do to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings are sometimes unhealthy – like drinking too much, sleeping a lot, overeating or under-eating, obsessively reading the news, etc.

Here are some examples:

Beatrice played and loved sports ever since her early days of elementary school. During her first year of high school, her swimming coach commented that if she could just lose her “baby fat”, she’d really have a competitive edge. Although you would not have been able to tell by the look on her face, in that moment, Beatrice felt deep shame. She started dieting as a way to lose weight and feel in control, and in an effort to avoid ever feeling bad about her weight again. Eventually Beatrice developed an eating disorder, and much of her time was spent thinking about food, counting calories, and exercising. She would avoid social events that involved food, as she preferred to have full control of what and when she ate. Also, because she was underweight, she felt more tired and had difficulty concentrating, so school became more difficult and her grades were negatively affected.

Rahim had a panic attack in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor concert. It was the most awful feeling he’d ever had. He felt trapped and like he was going to die. The next time his friends asked if he wanted to go to a concert, he made up an excuse about why he couldn’t go. Similarly, he started to avoid going anywhere where there might be big crowds, like sports games. When he was in a crowded environment, like a house party, he would use alcohol to ease his anxiety. Eventually, he avoided going anywhere far from home in case he had a panic attack, meaning he stopped travelling, which was something he loved to do.

Daniella had been in a long-term relationship for 3 years. She had never opened up to a person and been as vulnerable as she had been in that relationship, which ended a year ago when she found out her then boyfriend had been cheating on her. Daniella understandably never wanted to feel those feelings of hurt and betrayal again. She tried going on dates to meet someone new, but had trouble opening up and connecting with people. Eventually, she decided that dating was pointless and spent most of her free time working.

Beatrice, Rahim, and Daniella all changed their behaviours to avoid feeling emotional pain. In doing so, however, other important aspects of their lives were neglected. Their relationships suffered (or in Daniella’s case, the potential for a romantic relationship), as well as opportunities for growth and positive experiences. Beatrice wasn’t able to fully engage in school, and Rahim was no longer doing something that once brought him joy, travelling.

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Additionally, some of the methods they used to avoid were harmful. In Beatrice’s case, she restricted her food intake so much that she became significantly underweight and her health was negatively affected. To ease the worry about having a panic attack, Rahim became dependent on alcohol to feel okay in these situations. For Daniella, it is less clear. Being devoted to work and working hard is something most of us see as a good thing. In some cases though, positive or healthy behaviours or activities, such as sleeping, exercising, or seeing friends, could also be ways of avoiding. We may procrastinate reading that difficult email by reading the news, or working on that paper by cleaning our apartments. We may also avoid our feelings by getting caught up in our thoughts. For example, instead of accepting that a relationship is over and processing the feelings of loss and sadness, we might obsess over what went wrong and what we could’ve done differently.

So what should we do if we think we’re avoiding painful thoughts and emotions at the expense of other important things?

1. Take some time to get to know your negative thoughts and emotions. The more familiar you are with the negative thoughts and emotions that tend to come up for you, the better you'll be at managing them before they lead to avoidance. To get started on identifying your thoughts and feelings, check out these helpful worksheets.

2. Make it a point in your day-to-day life to notice what you might be doing to avoid. Ask yourself if there are behaviours or activities that are hard for you to give up, and why. For example, is it hard to give up a night of seeing friends because you would miss their company, or because being alone with your thoughts causes anxiety? Is it difficult to give up exercise because you would miss the mood-enhancing benefits, or would missing a day of your work-out make you feel like a bad person and cause significant distress?

3. Once you’ve become familiar with the thoughts and emotions you might be avoiding, and the potentially problematic behaviour you might be engaging in to avoid, take some time to identify your values. What are the things that are important to you? Is it growth, relationships, hard work, or fitness, for example? When we are clear on what our values are, we are better able to move toward them even when it’s hard. 

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
- Gord Downie -

4. Practice moving towards your values even when you’re experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. To help in this process, break down your “moving toward” behaviour into small, manageable steps, and use strategies to self-soothe and manage difficult emotions, such as mindfulness and deep breathing (or “power” breathing!). For example, if Rahim wanted to start going to places with more crowds because he values new experiences, he could break down this goal into small steps, and maybe start by going to a crowded restaurant, close to home, with a friend. To help him reduce his anxiety in this process, he could use the techniques outlined here, such as the 3-minute breathing space.

5. Be nice to yourself! We are hard-wired to avoid things that make us feel bad. Most of us have those days when we want to hide under the covers instead of facing the world. Instead of judging yourself for avoiding, try approaching these difficulties with curiosity and kindness. This compassionate mindset will be more helpful in moving toward your values when the going gets tough :)


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.  

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

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Lucy is a 25-year old working in her first job post-university. She’s always been an active person, but has never been confident with the way she looks. She considers herself to be pretty healthy, though. In the past year, she has gotten into more intense forms of cardio work-outs, and she makes sure to exercise most days, as well as to do yoga a few times a week. That’s good for body and mind, right…?  When she doesn’t have time to fit in exercise into her day, she gets antsy and feels irritable and guilty. Doesn’t that happen to everyone?

As a psychologist working with individuals aiming to improve their mental health, the topic of exercise often comes up in session. We have all heard that we “should” do some form of physical activity in our week (I’m going to come back to that word later). Indeed, the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health are well established (e.g., Penedo & Dahn, 2005, Anchor, 2010); better mood, reduced stress, increased motivation, better physical health across a range of measures, and an overall better quality of life.

But how can we approach exercise with an attitude of self-care, rather than obligation? And how can we notice when we’re taking it too far? Some clients describe moments when focusing on fitness and health can feel like a compulsion. It can be something that we feel we have to do (otherwise we might feel guilty, for example) - rather than something that feels good. It can feel obsessive and rigid, rather than a way of caring for our bodies and minds. The messages that we get from social media and general culture can be confusing, too. The rise of extreme fitness trends and Instagram-style fitness celebrities and workshops put forward the notion that fitness is about intensity, and pushing your body to its limit. And hidden in there too (often not so subtly) is a focus on body image - we “should” be strong, muscular, and intense in our dedication to physical fitness. As described in this recent article in the Walrus, messages about fitness have changed, but the focus on body image remains. For many adherents of extreme fitness, the message remains that, “we would be happier if our bodies were different”.

So how to pursue exercise in a way that is caring towards both your mind and body?

1. ADOPT AN ATTITUDE OF SELF-CARE

To quote this lovely blog, which discusses focusing on health in a mindful and balanced way: “Try paying attention to how you feel, the signals your body is sending you, and what would truly serve the needs you have.”

Self-care is a simple concept, but one that is often difficult to prioritise, given all the competing demands in our day. But the basic idea is that there are certain core needs that should be met in order for us to feel both mentally and physically healthy. Namely:

  • Stay hydrated - drink water
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Be physically active
  • Go outside
  • Take a shower
  • Sleep
  • Spend time with friends and family

In essence, self-care has some basic ingredients, but the “fine tuning” is unique to every person. It basically means taking some time to make sure that you are taking care of you (check out this link for some examples shared by individuals).

2. ALLOW YOURSELF TO CHOOSE

Identifying our self-care needs involves tuning in with our bodies and allowing ourselves to think about what would truly be in our best interest. Importantly, this involves allowing yourself to choose what you need in that particular moment. Sounds easy, but think about how often you end up feeling that you “should” do something else instead (is it just me…?)

For instance, if you’re feeling tired and stressed after a long day at work, what would serve your needs best? Would exercise help you get rid of some of that pent-up energy, and boost your mood? Or, some days, do you feel that what you really need is to sleep? This may mean choosing to go to bed early, and cancelling some of your plans (not always easy!). When you notice that your knee is hurting (a personal example of mine, following a knee surgery), does it need rest? Or, on the contrary, do I need to get to the gym and do my knee exercises? When you notice that you’re feeling under pressure and irritable at work, can you say no to a few requests and allow yourself to complete your existing tasks as best you can? And could you do some activity that will allow you to feel good and direct your focus back to you and your health (some laps in the pool, a dance class, a jog)?

The key is to become familiar with your body’s signals and needs, and allow yourself to choose what self-care would look like for you at that time - be that going for a jog, taking some time to read, spending time with loved ones, or simply going to bed. Being honest and flexible with oneself is key here. Feeling that you “should” do something is a warning sign to ask yourself if it is truly in your best interests. (Note: It’s worth pointing out here that self-care does not mean being selfish, or considering only your needs. It’s not “me first”, but rather “me too”, and ensuring that you maximise your own resources in order to be able to engage with what’s important to you - check out Andrea’s blog for more on this topic).

For those who have difficulties identifying their self-care needs, check out this fun, interactive guide).

3. IDENTIFY WHY EXERCISE IS IMPORTANT TO YOU

Read Jodie’s awesome 3-part blog posts which discuss identifying and connecting to your values, and figuring out how they can be pursued on a daily basis. Pay special attention to self-criticism (“you need to lose weight”) or “shoulds” that leave you feeling coerced (i.e., the stick, rather than the carrot). Jodie breaks this down into figuring out your WHYS, WHATS, and HOWS. This includes the most challenging part - how to keep your self-care habits going!

Follow us on Instagram @connectepsychology for your daily connect to self-care.


Maeve O'Leary-Barrett is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business: New York.

Penedo F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry;18(2):189-93.

Rupert, P. A., & Kent, J. S. (2007). Gender and work setting differences in career-sustaining behaviors and burnout among professional psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(1), 88-96. 

It’s fall already?! 5 ways to cope with end-of-summer blues

It’s fall already?! 5 ways to cope with end-of-summer blues

       Fall is often a time where we get a high volume of referrals at the Connecte Montreal Psychology Group – and that’s not entirely surprising - the warm weather is fading and the reality of back-to-school/work (whether for ourselves or our kids) is setting in. All of this can contribute to feelings of heightened sadness (as we ‘mourn’ the end of summer) or anxiety (as we picture the next few months like a mountain of upcoming work projects and dread the inevitable shift to colder weather). Some research even shows an association between vitamin D (which we get in part from the sun) and mood (Anglin, Samaan, Walter, & McDonald, 2013). It might seem like an objectively undesirable situation that we just can’t do much about. As it turns out, we have a lot more control than we may realize. In this blogpost, I’ll suggest some specific things that you can do to make this transition to fall more bearable, and hopefully even enjoyable.

#1. Take things one step at a time. It sounds cliché, but it’s true! Take the example of a student who, on her first day of school, looks at her syllabus and sees every chapter she will have to read, every assignment she will have to write, and every exam she will have to take for the remainder of the school year… of course she would feel overwhelmed and/or anxious! And she’s right, at some point she will have to undertake all of those challenging tasks. But viewing the school year that way is akin to looking at all of the food she will eat in a semester piled up on her kitchen floor – that would be enough to make even the biggest foodie lose her appetite. Instead, we want to take things one step at a time. For example, instead of thinking of everything you have to do in the upcoming semester, try instead to focus on what you have to do that week, that day, or even that morning. This change in perspective can make things more manageable. Indeed, much research has shown that the way we think about things can have a tremendous impact on our mood (Greenberger & Padesky, 2015).

#2. Shift your basis of comparison. If you love warm weather and find yourself feeling down after comparing the current 12-degree weather to the sunny 22-degree days that we enjoyed just a few short weeks ago, try to then compare the current weather to the much colder temperatures that we have endured (‘well at least it’s not anywhere near as cold as it was in February!’) or that people in other countries are currently exposed to. Maybe there are some things you could do without from the summer months – like the sticky humidity or those pesky mosquitos! Shifting our baseline can have a big impact on how we perceive our current situation.

#3. Consider whether there is anything you actually LIKE about the change in seasons.

a. Maybe you think it’s super interesting that we in Montreal get to have four seasons, whereas temperatures in some other places stay pretty constant over the course of the year; this gives us the opportunity to see our city through an entirely new lens – doesn’t your neighborhood look totally different when the streets are basked in sun versus colorful fall leaves or a blanket of fresh white snow? That variety can keep things novel and exciting should we choose to look at things this way.

b. Make a list of all the fun things you can do in the upcoming season(s) that you didn’t get to do in the previous one. Maybe you finally get to go skiing again once the weather gets cold enough - especially if one of your values is being healthy/active or being in nature. Or maybe you just love watching your kids roll around in the colorful fall leaves. Maybe you have been meaning to take up photography and the changing city views are leaving you inspired. Instead of looking back longingly at the lovely summer we just had or dreading the upcoming winter, why not plan fun things that you can look forward to doing in the coming month or two? Maybe you can rent a cozy log cabin with your family or friends, or maybe you can look forward to the winter holidays.

c. If you’re having a hard time thinking of something you actually like about the colder months, one of my favorite ways to do this is to follow the lead of children! Those little people know how to have a good time – and they can be a great source of inspiration – snow fights, rolling down a mountain, etc. 

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#4. Instead of trying to deny or disconnect from the inevitable fact that the season is changing, practice heightening your awareness by being mindful about these changes; try to be fully conscious and aware of the present moment, without being judgmental of your experience (click here for a review of the positive effects that mindfulness can have on mental health). Consider the difference between walking out of your house and grumbling to yourself about how the weather is getting colder versus taking a minute to notice how the crisp fresh air feels on your cheeks, how the crunchy leaves feel when you step on them as you walk down the street, etc. For more information about mindfulness, check out my colleague Dr. Natsumi Sawada’s blogpost.

#5. Increase self-care. Self-care can mean different things to different people; examples include taking time to prepare a healthy meal for yourself, reading a book by your favorite author, going to bed early, going for a run, or carving out time to catch up with a good friend. You might even talk to that good friend about how you notice a dip in your mood around this time of year; he or she might feel similarly, and it might help you to feel that you two are in it together. Self-care can contribute to improved mood, and pre-emptively engaging in more self-care activities can be especially helpful if you have noticed that your mood has tended to dip around this time of year in the past. Check out my colleague Dr. Jodie Richardson’s 3-part blogpost for more information about self-care.

Importantly, these same tips (e.g. shifting your baseline, increasing self-care) can be applied to many other life situations that might have you feeling down. Although the end-of-summer period can be rough for many of us, my hope is that these tips help to make that transition a bit easier!


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Anglin, R. E. S., Samaan, Z., Walter, S. D., McDonald, S. D. (2013). Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 202, 100–107.

Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C. A. (2015). Mind over mood, second edition: Change how you feel by changing the way you think. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Keng, S.-L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clin Psychol Rev, 31, 1041–1056.